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How this Brazilian police chief transformed her state's handling of femicides

Eugênia Villa, the woman who created the first police department to investigate femicides in Brazil. Photo: Secretaria de Segurança Pública do Estado do Piauí

This story is part of Global Voices’ special coverage on gender-violence in Latin America.

A glass container the size of a mayonnaise jar was filled all the way to the top with a clear liquid. Inside, there was a human body part that looked like it had been severed with a knife. ​Cinco Estrelas, a police clerk who was working on the case, took it to the magistrate in charge of internal affairs (corregedor) at an appeals court of Piauí, one of the poorest states in Brazil.

The year was 2002, and that magistrate was Eugênia Villa, who recently recounted the story to Global Voices in a conversation via Skype while quarantined in her home in Teresina, Piauí's capital. When she asked the clerk what the item in the jar was, he replied: “It's a woman's ear. I'm taking it to the morgue.”

Villa still remembers the shock. “That was a first for me,” she said. Since the women's police unit was on the same building, she headed there to investigate, as she recalls:

A delegada responsável me contou que se tratava de uma mulher que concordou que o companheiro cortasse uma parte da orelha. A mulher havia traído o companheiro e se viu merecedora do castigo. Isso não é algo que te ensinam na academia de polícia ou na faculdade, não te ensinam que isso acontece, que essa é a vida real.

The female police chief told me that the ear belonged to a woman who gave permission to her partner to cut it off. The woman had cheated on him and she said she deserved it. This is not something they teach you at the police academy or at law school. They don't teach you that it happens, that this is real life.

That episode would forever change Villa's career. At that moment, she decided to dedicate the rest of her life to bridging the chasm between real-life violence against women and Brazil's legal system. She dropped a 19-year career in architecture to join the police academy and went on to become a superintendent in her state's civil police.

In 2015, she created Brazil's first police unit focused exclusively on investigating femicides. To this day, Teresina remains the only Brazilian city with such a unit.

Femicides are on the rise in Brazil, even though general homicide rates are down. An analysis by newspaper Folha de S. Paulo published in February showed that 2019 saw an increase of 7.2 percent of femicide cases in relation to the previous year — that's 1,310 women killed in the country last year, most of them in episodes of domestic violence.

Villa's personal story is a testament to the struggles women face in Brazil's police forces. At age 32, she left a career in architecture and enrolled in law school. Shortly after graduating in 2000, she passed the test to become a police officer. Villa entered the police academy while pregnant.

Eu escondi a gravidez. Eu tinha receio de que eles não iriam me aprovar. (…) Minha carreira foi feita de quebrar paradigmas.

I hid the pregnancy [during the test]. I was afraid they wouldn't approve me. (…) My career was made out of shattered paradigms.

Once in the academy, she teamed up with two other colleagues who were also pregnant to ask their superiors to be relieved from physical activities. Not only the academy rejected the request, but it also marked them zero in those disciplines, affecting their global average.

Eugênia went on to become the dean of that same academy a few years later and says that one of the first things she did was to ensure pregnant students were treated fairly. She says:

Eu sou branca. Católica. Heterossexual. Em uma sociedade colonizada, eu reconheço meu lugar e meus privilégios – e rompo com isso. Rompo com isso no momento em que me reconheço e uso isso para que a violência estrutural que todas sofremos, de diferentes formas, diminua.

I'm white. Catholic. Heterosexual. In a colonized society, I recognize my place and my privileges, but I break with that. I break with that the moment I recognize [those privileges] and use them to fight against the structural violence from which we all suffer in different ways.

Changing the system from within

Women's rights legislation was slow to catch on in Brazil.

Women's police units were created starting in 1985. Nine years later, Brazil ratified the Interamerican Convention to Prevent, Punish, and Eradicate Violence Against Women (also known as the Belém do Pará Convention).

It took another 10 years for the country to pass legislation that punished women's attackers: The Maria da Penha Law, named after a women's rights activist who became paraplegic after her husband tried to kill her, was sanctioned in 2006 and became Brazil's first law against domestic violence.

In 2015, the word “femicide” finally made it to the country's Penal Code.

But for Villa, there is still much to be done:

São várias as fragilidades. A começar pelo termo violência doméstica, que limita a mulher à condição de ‘do lar’. Além disso, pela lei nacional, não se enxerga a morte de mulheres trans como feminicídio, não se enxergava estupro marital por muito tempo, há uma cegueira em torno de feminicídios fora de relacionamentos.

There are several weaknesses. Starting with the term domestic violence, which limits women to the condition of “housewife.” Besides, under national law, killings of trans women aren't seen as femicides. Marital rape was inivisible for a very long time. There is a blindness around femicides outside of relationships.

Along with Brazil's first femicide department, Villa created a study group focused on gender violence as well as a method to investigate femicides. She is also the mastermind of Caravana Salve Maria (Hail Mary Caravan), an interagency government program in Piauí focused on educating women about gender violence. She says:

As ideias misóginas estão impregnadas no sistema. São ideias reproduzidas por anos e não questionadas. O que fizemos foi explicar, através do método científico, o porquê de isso estar errado e como concertar. O promotor, o juiz, o policial… Por muito tempo, estavam cegos.

Misogynistic ideas are embedded into the system. They have been reproduced for years, never questioned. What we did was to explain, through the scientific method, why this was wrong and how we could fix it. The prosecutor, the judge, the police… For a long time, they were blind to those issues.

Villa says that a former colleague of hers, a police chief, used to joke that Eugênia must have been beaten up by a boyfriend for her to care so much about violence against women.

“I was never physically beaten,” she laughs. “But I've taken a figurative beating when opening doors for change and for other women.”

For an interview to a local publication, Eugênia made sure that the photograph featured her holding a book, instead of a gun | Photo: Personal Archive/Used with permission

After she took over the internal affairs department, a reporter from a local newspaper who was profiling her was surprised to find her in a floral dress while helping her son with homework. Villa says she intended to be photographed in that dress — while also holding a book, rather than a gun, she says.

At her current job, Villa is in charge of evaluating and improving the penal system in Piauí. As such, she oversees the training of police agents and stations when it comes to assisting women in situations of violence.

She never learned what happened to the woman who had her ear severed, the case that first piked her interest in gender issues within the legal system. But she believes that Piauí's security has vastly improved when it comes to supporting its female citizens.

Hoje, dificilmente esse caso ficaria sem solução. O que falta no combate à violência? Falta compreender a violência como estrutural e estruturante das relações sociais.

Today, it's unlikely that that case would be left unresolved. What is lacking in the struggle against violence? An understanding that violence is structural and structuring of social relations.

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